Spiritual or Mental sloth; apathy by Kathleen Norris '69

I didn’t bring acedia into the world, but in my book Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life (Riverhead Books), I brought it into the contemporary era. The word “acedia” is an ancient term signifying profound indifference and inability to care about things that matter, even to the extent that you no longer care that you can’t care. I liken it to spiritual morphine: You know the pain is there but can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.

When I told a Benedictine monk that I wanted to write a book about acedia, he said, “You’ve got an open field; not much has been done with it for centuries.” It turned out he was right. I discovered the word in the sayings of the Christian monastic men and women of the fourth century who, in rebelling against a newly legal, wealthy, and politically powerful church, fled to the deserts of the Middle East. Today we would call their opting for a simple life “going off the grid.” These people quickly discovered that while they had left material possessions behind, they hadn’t shed their inner demons. Eventually they developed a sophisticated psychology of the “eight bad thoughts” that commonly troubled them, the most spiritually devastating of which were acedia, anger, and pride.

In the sixth century, as the church developed its doctrine of the “seven deadly sins,” acedia was tucked into the sin of sloth, and the word disappeared from common usage. The profound understanding of acedia as a spiritual malaise disappeared from human consciousness as a new emphasis on the lesser evil of physical laziness prevailed.

I wrote my book because I realized that while the word “acedia” is unfamiliar to many people, its effects are widely known. I suspect that many plagues of contemporary society—a toxic, nearly unbearable mix of boredom and restlessness, frantic escapism (including workaholism), commitment phobia, contempt for others,  and enervating despair—are the ancient demon of acedia in modern dress.

Acedia can manifest as either extreme lethargy or hyperactivity, but it is not merely a personal problem. It affects communities as well, allowing us to settle for being less than we can be, both as individuals and a society. Acedia offers a false sense of security and complacency. If we regard rampant homelessness as just “the way things are,” it relieves us from having to do anything about it. Acedia feeds on “compassion fatigue,” and assures us that the world’s problems are so big that we need not trouble ourselves about them. It’s useless to try to change things.

There is no certain remedy for acedia, any more than for anger or pride. They are part of the human condition. But we can learn to recognize these “bad thoughts” and resist them when they strike. A method recommended by a Christian monk in the fourth century and employed in cognitive behavioral therapy today is to “think about your thoughts.” When anger, greed, pride or acedia rise in us we can examine the thought dispassionately and try to figure out where it is leading us, and what it is tempting us to do. There is no blame attached to having a “bad thought,” because they come to everyone. But we do have some choice in how we respond to them. The early monastics knew that in rejecting anger, we embrace compassion. In rejecting pride we come to a realistic understanding of our humble place in the universe. In rejecting acedia, we choose to care. We choose to love.

Kathleen Norris ’69 is the award-winning, bestselling author of Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith; The Cloister Walk; and Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, in various anthologies, and in her own three volumes of poetry. She divides her time between South Dakota and Hawai